Apart from software development and photography, the other ‘big thing’ in my life is translating various texts from English to Polish. As a volunteer translator I have contributed dozens of big and small bits to many software and writing projects. It’s a fun and satisfying effort that brings tangible benefits to my fellows while introducing tricky challenges I don’t typically deal with elsewhere.
Unlike software and photography, anything that involves languages in my life didn’t happen by accident. Apart from reasonable English skills, I was also one of few people in my school bubble that had little to no problems learning Polish - be it grammar, vocabulary or spelling. Of course I had my share of ups and downs, especially when it came to obligatory reading or understanding poetry. Overall though, my Polish is decent and I consider it my superpower.
There was a period in my life when I thought I would become a translator for a living. But being stuck in a tiny town with rather limited range of options, I picked whatever was available to me at the time: I became an English teacher. Even when I finally switched to IT a few years later, the dream of doing ‘stuff’ with my semi-decent knowledge of two languages never died.
Buuuuut I digress. Of course I do, that’s what blogs are for.
Words don’t come easy
A lot has been written on how languages shape our minds, our cultures, the way we see the world, and the way we approach other people and ideas. We learn languages not only to communicate, but also to get deeper understanding of what’s happening around us.
But what happens when novel concepts are first named in one language and all the others lag behind?
What happens when one language expresses a wide range of semantic shades around a specific concept while others don’t bother naming even one of them?
What happens when the idea is so abstract it fails to deliver the specific emotion when translated to a different language?
As a translator, no matter how amateur my work is, my aim is to produce content that gives justice to the original while remaining enjoyable to read to my Polish friends. That means I don’t necessarily aim to map all the English words to Polish equivalents. But it is my responsibility to retain any specific feeling or semantic nuance that made the author choose this particular English word and not the others.
It’s a labor of care, love and respect, both to the person whose voice I’m emulating and the people who will read what I wrote. It is also a constant fight with my own limitations. After all, I do it as a hobby and I’m aware of a difference in experience between me and people who do all of that for a living.
That being said, I often encounter situations when particular English words refuse to translate well to any of the equivalents in my language. Even though I have strategies to work around this, I have a vague feeling it tells something specific about my own culture and society. Maybe we’re on a different level of empathy that prevents us from the sole process of thinking about this specific thing? Maybe novel ideas don’t infect people’s minds as fast as I assume? I’m not sure.
I don’t know what to do with that thought. But for the sake of entertainment, I started to note specific words that triggered that trap of ‘how the fuck do I express it in Polish’. I gotta say I compiled this list in way less time than I expected.
Here we go. Order not exactly random, but still chaotic.
‘Unfuck’, ‘unscrew’, un-anything
Perhaps my biggest gripe of this list.
You see, in Polish we have plenty of swear words that map well to English equivalents. In the ‘kurwa belt’ we Slavic folks know how to throw tantrums and offend people. We also have other words that revolve around violent destruction: ‘rozpierdalać’, ‘rozjebać’, ‘rozkurwić’ and many others.
But the English language, unlike ours, figured out that if something gets fucked up, it also has to be repaired. So it’s not uncommon to ‘unfuck’, ‘unscrew’, ‘unmess’ various things.
The only way to get around that in Polish, while still sounding natural, is to use safe euphemisms. But by getting rid of a swear word, I also get rid of certain load of emotion this word carries.
In Polish, we have a prefix ‘od’, which performs the same function as ‘un’ in in English, but for some reason I don’t see it being attached to swear words. We don’t have ‘odrozpierdalać’, ‘odrozjebać’, ‘odrozkurwić’. And when you add it to a progressive verb like ‘pierdolić’ or ‘jebać’, you get ‘odpierdolić’ or ‘odjebać’, and those are perfect verbs (the action took place in the past).
What do I do when things get unfucked in my texts? Well, unfortunately, I opt for a family-friendly equivalent.
Maybe we Poles don’t go back when we cross certain level of destruction, so we don’t need to invent verbs for things we don’t do.
‘Writer’ in English is another interesting one. The way I understand this word in English is ‘someone who writes, especially for a living’ and it’s a very flexible label.
These days, people write various things. Fiction, screenplays, poems, technical documentation, manuals, tutorials, blog posts, news articles.
‘Writer’ translated literally to Polish is ‘pisarz’. However, our traditional understanding of this word refers to fiction and art works and sounds weird with other, more utilitarian forms of writing. We have words for ‘bloggers’, ‘journalists’, ‘reporters’, ‘publicists’ and ‘authors’. But all of these words are very specific, usually referring to only one form of writing.
In many cases, non-fiction writing is treated as a secondary effort alongside other, more prominent activity. We introduce people as experts in their own field first and THEN as book authors or bloggers.
What is missing is a general word for people who write but are neither journalists, bloggers nor artists. Since I published non-fiction books in the early 2010s, I could label myself a ‘writer’ in English. But referring to me with a Polish word ‘pisarz’ doesn’t make sense, as I have never published anything fictional. And writing isn’t my primary way of earning income.
The common meaning of integrity is ‘the state of being whole and complete’, which is close enough to our word ‘integralność’ - so not much to talk about here.
There’s also another meaning, frequently used (and abused) by social media platforms to denote a weird mix of honesty, credibility, strong dedication to moral principles and determination not to compromise on any of these. Or, in simpler terms, to talk some nonsense about fake interactions and failures of content moderation.
None of the existing Polish equivalents (“prawość”, which means lawfulness, or “uczciwość”, which means honesty) describes the whole spectrum of ideas packed into that single word. The only way to deal with this word is to replace it with something less accurate.
Words commonly used in software projects and open source community. Their meaning in English is very clear and straightforward. Contributor is someone who adds their work and effort to a bigger piece. The size of their contribution doesn’t seem to matter. On GitHub, I become a contributor to a project even if I fix a tiny typo in the README file.
Maintainer is the one who runs the project.
In Polish, the closest equivalent of ‘contributor’ is ‘współpracownik’ (which means ‘workmate’ and doesn’t denote the fact of doing any collaborative work, merely signifying the fact of being employed by the same entity), or ‘współautor’ (which means ‘co-author’ and signals significant size of the contribution to whole piece. If I fix a typo in the README file, do I really become a co-author of the project?).
I hate to think that our lack of certain words for collaborative effort says anything about our collaboration and empathy skills (or lack thereof), but I’m not really sure any more.
No, not the person that plays roles in movies or stage plays. In Polish we call that person ‘aktor’. Easy enough.
I mean the one who acts or takes part in something that is not a form of performative art.
‘Bad actor’ as an entity justifying the existence of various security concepts. ‘State actor’ as a government-related entity doing vile things for taxpayers’ money.
I can’t find of existing word in my language that fits. Instead, I use more specific words depending on the context. I could cheat and just use ‘aktor’ but this still doesn’t sound right.
Oh oh oh, and I forgot an important one
Added on 14th November: Szymon Nowicki pointed out I forgot the most notorious one: enjoy.
Yup. We, Poles, are too serious to enjoy things.
And many more…
This list could be much, much longer. The core problem of giving names to foreign ideas will not cease to exist any time soon. A lot of the words I mentioned above might find their Polish equivalents within next few years. Or we may adopt them as-is - after all, Polish language works just like any other language and it contains thousands of words borrowed from other languages over many centuries.
Perhaps that’s what keeps me interested in translating stuff. And maybe that’s something that justifies the existence of human translators while automatic tools like DeepL or large language models like ChatGPT are trying to steal our lunch. After all, it’s us, humans, who use and shape our languages as we see fit.